New Car Creates New Challenges in Bristol Dirt Return

The Next Gen, a new tire and a different track configuration awaits the Cup Series.

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A great deal of effort went into making the second Bristol Dirt Race a success, and that goal could have been accomplished simply with the help of a better forecast, but Speedway Motorsports didn’t stop there.

The inaugural running was scheduled as a day race, not exactly the best conditions for a race on dirt, further made complicated by a weeklong downpour that started before teams even arrived. The track that day started off wet and heavy and slicked off into what amount to a grip limited pavement short track.

It wasn’t really a dirt race, at least not after the first stage when the track started to take a lot of rubber from the Goodyear traded radials but defending Cup champion Kyle Larson says Sunday night should be inherently better.

"I really think our racing at Bristol this year with the Cup car is going to be a lot better than what it was last year," Larson said. "I think with us running at nighttime, it’s going to be great for the racing. Goodyear has brought a much better dirt tire it looks like, so I think it’s going to look more similar to a dirt race.

"I think those dirt fans that are hopefully going to show up for the race this Sunday are going to be in for a treat. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a fun weekend. A lot of unknowns still, but it should be a good time no matter what."

Larson isn’t without some reservation as he also believes the car should have been outfitted with something other than a windshield and wishes NASCAR had devoted more time in the off-season to testing something more similar to what Dirt Late Models run.

"I guess the way that I look at it (is) if we’re not going to take the windshields out, then why are we racing on dirt?" Larson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "We just shouldn’t race on dirt if we’re not going to take the windshields out and actually have a dirt race with moisture in the track and being able to produce a real dirt race. I feel like we’re just wasting everybody’s time a little bit and not giving the fans and competitors what we all deserve.

"So, in my opinion, if we’re not going to take the windshields out, we might as well just never put dirt on Bristol again – which I’m all for not putting dirt on Bristol whether we have windshields or not. I think the racing at Bristol is amazing just as normal."

Truck Series contender and perennial Big Block Modified champion Stewart Friesen tested the Next Gen earlier in the month, putting both the new tire and what amounted to a chicken wire mesh windshield through its paces.

Friesen believes the elements are there for a better show than last year even if there is more to be learned and executed if these cars are going to race on dirt well into the future.

"These are purpose-built pavement stock cars trying to put a show on dirt, so there’s a little bit of work to do," Friesen said. "There’s definitely a lot of differences with that (new) car. So, we’re going to try our best to get the car as forgiving as we can and do our best so the guys can go up there and put on a good show. But I think it’ll be good. The tire itself is a lot better than what we raced there last year, so that’s probably the biggest thing going into it right now. There’s a couple options as far as the gear splits being a lot closer than it is with just a four-speed. There might be some adjustability there where you could use a lower gear to get off the bottom or a hollow gear to rip the top if it gets going that way."

Friesen said the chicken wire mesh didn’t prevent big chunks of dirt from stinging his fingers as he turned laps, and Larson said he agreed with NASCAR’s decision not to use that, even if he’s vehemently against the standard windshield.

"How they had it at the test, yes, I would’ve felt unsafe because all they had was chicken wire, so that’s not going to stop anything coming through," Larson said. "So yes, I would not have felt safe with what they had for testing. But I think, who knows how long they’ve been working on it? To me, with them putting chicken wire in it, it probably didn’t look like they worked on it very long, like maybe last-minute.

"I feel like if they would’ve worked on it months ago, then they probably would’ve come up with something safer to put in to keep big things from coming in the cockpit. … I think there’s a lot of other simpler things they can do to make them safe enough to where nothing’s going to come in the cockpit other than mud."

Larson's suggestion is welding bars across the windshield not unlike what is used in Dirt Late Models.

"There is not a spindle or a heavy piece of car that’s going to come through that," Larson said. "It is extremely heavy duty and I don’t see why we couldn’t weld in something like that or clamp in bars that are temporary, whatever it may be. I definitely think there is a way to run no windshields."

That sentiment was shared by Austin Dillon.

"We kind of got to work on that too late," Dillon said. "Moving forward, we need to figure out a way that we could put those bars in to protect the driver's hands. ... We’re just too late in the game to kind of make that call, but hopefully, following up if we do another dirt race, we can pop those windshields out.

"It's not hard for us to weld bars in and make some kind of cover for our hands and feel comfortable about what could happen."

The Friesen test also feature various underbody panels, plastic instead of carbon fiber for example, in addition to various different cooling ducts. A plastic modified rear diffuser will also be used.

But defending winner Joey Logano says there is still much to learn once track action gets underway on Friday.

"How’s the car going to cool?" Logano said. "How's the car going to handle mud and dirt? Where's it all going to collect? What's the dust going to be like in the car? ... There'll be some things we'll have to learn."

For now, Speedway Motorsports hopes nighttime conditions and the new configurations gets the Bristol Dirt Race closer to what’s seen in the World of Outlaws or Lucas Oil Late Model Series. Last year, the track was banked 19 degrees and this year it is 16 degrees at the apron and gets progressively steeper from 18 and then 19 degrees.

"We have to race at night," Logano said. "That was important. Because you just couldn't even see the cars, and it was unsafe inside the car."

For all the optimism, there is Kyle Busch, one of the modern best to ever do it on the concrete surface and would rather there not be a dirt race at Thunder Valley or anywhere else for that matter.

He said it's time to 'cut the cord' on the experiment.

"It’s a mess," Busch said. “It’s just not… our cars [and] tracks, it’s just not indicative of putting on a good dirt show. I’ve seen good dirt shows."

But there's more excitement than pessimism as expressed by Alex Bowman.

"I think the dirt thing is really cool," Bowman said. "I enjoy it. We were really strong last year until we broke a transmission. So, I’m all for it. Hopefully the sequential is a little harder to break for me and I don’t create my own issue there again and have to ride around in third gear all day. I think it’s fun. The cars are really fun to drive.

"Obviously, it presents its own unique set of challenges and we’ve only had one try to get it right so far. I think the more we do it, the better it’s going to get."

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